The research of British historian Robert Conquest, author of the book "Kolyma," produced some gruesome information on the subject of mortality rate. According to him the death rate among the prisoners reached 30% in the first year and almost total in the second. The factors which contributed to such a high loss of life among the prisoners, in the first place, were the climatic conditions in winter which resulted in death and amputations due to frostbite; this was followed by the sub-marginal rations of food which destroyed men physically and mentally; and finely sickness of epidemic proportion like scurvy and dysentery which also took their toll. The above sicknesses did not qualify for hospitalization and treatment.

    The exact figures from Kolyma have not yet been released or identified, but Pohl (1997) has published figures from the Soviet archives on the "official" death count from all of the labor camps. The annual number of deaths in these camps, particularly around the wars years, may have be grossly understated, but is nevertheless appalling.


    In total, between 1937 and 1953, as estimated by Robert Conquest, Kolyma consumed almost 3 million lives, mainly natives of the Soviet Union. Numerically the Polish losses were a mere fraction of the total, but less than 5% of them survived. Of the 12,000 Poles sent to that region between 1940 and 1941 only 583 men returned alive. The following reports of those who survived give us some insight into the conditions experienced by prisoners within the penal system of Kolyma at that time. These are various excerpts from books and stories written on the subject:

    " was uncommon for a work force of 2000 to 3000 to be able to send only 100 to the gold face...

    ...that of 3000 katorga prisoners sent to Maxim Gorky mine in 1944 only 500 were healthy enough to be transferred to Laso the following season...

    ...No Polish prisoners at all returned of 3000 sent to Chukhots camps...

    ...In Maldyak out of total 20 Poles in my group 16 died... Komsomolets, there were only 46 survivors out of 436 men... 10th OLP in Magadan out of total 500 Poles only 130 survived...

    This dual-purpose system was designed to eliminate all politically undesirable elements and to provided precious gold for the Soviet Treasury. It also made Kolyma into the burial grounds for many high-ranking communists whom for one reason or another fell out of favor. Many of them experienced, before their deaths, the hardships of laboring in gold mines before cold, hunger, sickness and misery consumed their lives.

    The hero of the widely publicized Kirow trial, Iwan Zaporozec, became a prisoner in Kolyma before he was finally executed in 1937. The first director of the "frozen land," Rheingold Berzin, met his end in one of the arctic camps which he once built and supervised. This was his punishment for some false accusation that he conspired with Japan to hand over Kolyma to this eastern neighbor of the Soviets. Next, the man who instituted his own kind of terror in the camps under his rule, Garagin, disappeared somewhere in the North in one of the gold mines. His successor Wishniowiecki, met with the same fate - ironically brought to the trial for the death of prisoners whom he took on expedition to find new gold fields. The fate of other administrators such as Gakajev, Drabkin and Nikishow may never be known.

    In this enormous state enterprise, involving millions of people, in unheard-of hardship, misery and death, there was another side which should be taken into account. This balancing item was the precious gold itself and its output. Again, relying on Robert Conquest's calculations, its production started with a few tons in the first year and reached 400 to 500 tons the year at the peak of human sacrifice.

    Measuring the total estimated tonnage against the loss of life the account would place no more than one kilo of gold for each human life lost in the process of production. In present terms of gold value it would amount from $16,000 to $17,000 per lost life. In practice this was the unit which in its final assessment governed the cost of the precious metal.

    The outbreak of war with Nazi Germany in 1941, and initial heavy losses on the front, forced the Soviet leaders to revise their policy towards the slave labor force. Seeing that the sources of labor were limited in their potential, they brought in some drastic changes for the benefit of the imprisoned men. Now that manpower became scarce due to the war, it became more appreciated. The harsh treatment of 1937-1942 was abandoned as a policy, which allowed for a gradual improvement of living conditions in the labor camps. With this, the mortality rate substantially decreased. For several years thereafter the Soviet Union still remained a slave empire, but this time one which was more tolerant of its prisoners. With this the idiom "dokhodiaga" or "gonner" came to an end in the penal lingo.

    When, with victory over Germany in 1945, losses on the front came to an end a new slave labor situation had developed. This situation opened new sources of labor from the newly subdued people. The newcomers to the system were German and Japanese POWs, Ukrainian nationalists, Rumanians and, ironically, members of the Polish Underground Army, who had helped the Soviet war effort. All these men filled in the empty spaces of their deceased predecessors. However, they found the living conditions more tolerable than those who had been in Kolyma before them did. Many of them served their ten years sentence, and with further changes of political climate inside the Soviet Union, were allowed to return to their home countries.